In villages of Bihar, women sing a song — Mitti me milal zindagani, Balam piye mahua ke paani (My life has gone to dust, my husband drinks water of the Mahua (butter tree)). It is believed that these songs will become a thing of the past, now, that the state has completely banned the trade and consumption of liquor. While women from all sections of the society are heaving a sigh of relief, men are feeling the blues. For a change, it is the women who are in high spirits, uncorking all that they had kept bottled inside them for ages.
For a government to agree to this ban which has huge economic implications, it required sacrifices of many women who did not relent under pressure and fought single-mindedly to give themselves a dignified life. A silent revolution which may not be visible on the surface was going on through the formation of nearly 5 lakh self-help groups (SHGs), which were involved through their individual struggles in getting the much acclaimed liquor ban enforced in Bihar.
Mukhiya of Domath panchayat in Bettiah, Sushma Devi says that many women were committing suicide because of drunkard husbands who left them alone to survive a harsh life with their offspring. We fought a long battle with the help of the community and Jeevika (Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society) to stop this menace.
Pramila Devi of Parbatti in Bhagalpur had been fighting against this societal ill since 2009. When she got married in 1978 and came to the locality, she got disturbed by the smell of liquor emanating from everywhere which made it difficult for her to cross the threshold of her house. She saw people facing penury and dying as a result of this affliction. In 2009, she decided to do something to change the scenario and began a door-to-door campaign; soon other women joined her and they formed Mahila Sangharsh Samiti. The Samiti met the DM, SSP, MP and even resorted to various kinds of protests. Today Pramila is elated at the government ban.
In Rohtas there are villages like Sitabigha, Karbandiya, Khanda and Banka where many women have been widowed because of alcohol. For them, it is an everyday battle to survive as they are also faced with unemployment and non-existing support structure. Jaymala Tiwari, the district secretary of Pragatisheel Mahila Morcha says that now that the government has banned liquor, it should also take steps to support these women who are facing the brunt of alcoholism.
Formed after the Nirbhaya incident, which the members of the Morcha felt was also a result of this addiction, the organisation took out rallies and held campaigns in villages, tolas and cities. They ransacked liquor shops and smashed bottles. Women even took to beating drunkard husbands on the streets. They conducted sensitization campaigns to make people aware about the ill-effects of alcohol. They battled threats by the liquor mafia and made a plea to the government to take back the 2007 policy which sought to increase revenues through a new excise policy that took liquor to villages. It is ironical that the same government today has imposed the ban.
On July 9, 2015, CM Nitish Kumar, after addressing women activists at a state level Gram Varta workshop organised by Women’s Development Corporation and DFID at Patna’s SK Memorial Hall, had barely taken his seat when a woman from the audience said, Mukhyamantri Ji, sharab band kariye. Ghar barbad ho raha hai (Mr. CM, ban liquor, our homes are getting destroyed).’’ Other women joined the chorus. The CM was so moved, he got up from his chair and famously announced, “If I come back to power, I will enforce complete liquor ban in Bihar.’’ The woman was a member of an SHG formed under Jeevika, one of the many didis of the 2,900,16 Jeevika SHGs in Bihar.
This is the story that everyone knows. But the truth is that it was not a very quick decision for CM Nitish Kumar. Informed sources relate: The story goes back to 2011 when the Nitish government took a decision to declare November 26th as ‘No Liquor Day’. At the very first meeting, SHG members from Muzaffarpur and Alauli had requested for a ban on liquor while sharing their experiences. That day the seed was sown which bore fruit on April 5th, 2016. It was then that the CM realised how Jeevika could play a role in ascertaining a complete ban on liquor. On the ‘No Liquor Day’ in 2015, just six days after taking oath, Nitish Kumar kept his promise and announced his government’s decision to ban liquor. He was watching the functioning of the SHGs for the past four years. The SHG women had also demanded the inclusion of the ban in the state vision document 2025.
The mandate of Jeevika was never anti-alcoholism; it was livelihood promotion for the social and economic empowerment of women. But alcoholism was coming in the way as the SHG members who borrowed money from the group were not able to return it on time as the husbands squandered their money on liquor. It also led to absenteeism during meetings as the SHG members got beaten by drunkard husbands and found it difficult to participate.
Archana Tiwari, project manager, social development, Jeevika says post ban the women unanimously believe that the government has given them a license now to correct their errant husbands as it had earlier given a license to men to open liquor shops.
Even CM Nitish Kumar realises that this liquor ban cannot be successful without these women so he does not forget to emphasise the important role played by them in public events. May be, for him, as well, it is a penance or self-correction.
However, the ban may be politically motivated as the Bihar CM is working strategically to consolidate his new constituency of women electorate but it has sincere sociological import. The Bihar government has been aiming to take the figure of SHGs to 10 lakh and connect 1.5 crore women through them, which in turn will affect over 6 crore persons in the state. This caste-neutral constituency may pay him rich dividends in future.
The SHG women are working in tandem with the government machinery to support the liquor ban. De-addiction centres are coming up all over the state to counter the health issues cropping up because of the all-encompassing ban.
A case like that of Vijyanti Devi of Rohtas gives a glimpse of the changes that could usher. Vijyanti’s daughter Ishika played a crucial role in reuniting estranged parents. Nearly 14 years back, Vijyanti left her husband Jai Govind Singh who was a habitual drunkard. A jovial Singh confesses that he lost everything because of his alcoholism. He is all praise for Nitish to enforce such a ban. Ishika had submitted a written pledge to her school that she will help in converting her father as well as other drunkards in her neighbourhood.
Another case in point is of vigilantism. Vibha of Samastipur who comes from the Pasi samaj (a community in Bihar traditionally connected with toddy tapping) took a strong step against her sister-in-law Kabutari Devi and got her arrested for selling toddy when she refused to stop selling liquor even after the ban.
A native of Hridayganj in Katihar Vijay Choudhary worked hard day and night as painter but spent most of his earnings on liquor. His family was facing a tough time because of his addiction. There were continuous fights and tension. But after the ban, he had no option left but to give up booze. He fell ill, was taken to the Sadar hospital where after treatment and counselling, he has decided not to touch it ever again.
Similarly, the family of a police officer Suresh Ram in Katihar, infamous for drinking, is finally at peace as he has pledged not to touch the banned substance again. The government is even felicitating people who vouch to mend ways.
But there still are women like Ranju, who works in a government office. She got beaten by her drunkard husband even after the ban as he is still able to procure it stealthily. But Ranju doesn’t want to report her husband to the police as she says that she has to lead her life with him so there is no point getting him punished.
Now, SHGs and Village Organisations are in a monitoring role and the members feel that it’s easier to control errant husbands. Even the men in villages know how the women have contributed to the government’s decision so they have no option but to behave. However, there are reports of illegal procurement of liquor in some areas, which, sometimes get reported but at times women are helpless. They know that if they get their husbands, sons, fathers and others arrested, it is they who will have to arrange money for their release later so they chose to keep quiet.
But something that is remarkable about the ban is that the fight of these poor women has benefitted womanhood in general. The woman of the affluent class got everything served to them in a platter, as usually happens, without contributing in any substantial way to this struggle.
Parties in Patna have lost their ‘colour’, late night revelry is already a thing of the past, no more drinking brawls, and men are giving more time to their wives and kids. This has been corroborated by more than one woman. However, the men feel the ‘spark’ has gone out of their lives.
While the woman of the lower strata who fought heroically to win this battle came out with their stories with raw details, the lessons from the lives of their rich sisters will remain largely unknown, hidden behind curtains as always.